Tuesday

2nd Jun 2020

Column

Western 'endarkenment' and the voodoo politics of Europe

Welcome to the Voodoo West, a place where everybody wants the impossible and hopes for the unrealistic.

The West used to be the global middle class of politics. The ideals were great, the goals were moderate, and everyone was hard at work. Now the ideals are forgotten, the goals are grandiose, and laziness, especially lazy thinking, prevails.

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  • Irrationality often makes for the most beautiful moments in life. But it makes for very bad politics (Photo: German Marshall Fund)

This is the impression you can get of Western politics if you take one or two steps back, extract yourself from the daily fear and loathing of headline politics, and try to get a proper reading of the bigger picture.

The West consists of those parts of the world in which the ideas of the French and American revolutions of the late 18th centuries are embraced as the standard for public affairs.

The standards established by these revolutions – rational self-government, regulated power distribution, proper legal procedure, freedom of speech, property rights – form a great ideal that is not easy to live up to.

The yardstick of Westernness was therefore not whether a society would adhere to these standards flawlessly, but how seriously it would deal with violations against them.

Knowing full well that in a world run by humans perfection is impossible to get, the basis of western politics is not spotlessness but self-correction.

The basis for such permanent self-adjustment is a realistic view on where things stand. What is required is soberness about one's own goals and their achievability, and about the power, resources, limitations and weaknesses one brings to the game.

None of the West's major protagonists seems to have a very balanced assessment of these factors these days. Most of them run on delusion, self-deceit, dreams, misinterpretations of reality and what Marx would have called "false consciousness".

Take the United States. This president's foreign policies are fundamentally based on the idea that the US is endowed with an endless supply of strength and power that will forever make it the most powerful country in the world which will forever be able to prevail in any conflict it chooses or is forced to enter.

Such a country needs no rules, no treaties, no international organisations or multilateral institutions. Most importantly, it needs no allies, just tributaries.

Absolute sovereignty reigns supreme for such a country, and it is allowed to behave accordingly.

Or at least its president is. The flawed assumptions of limitless strength creates its own fatal political logic. If power is endless, values are negotiable.

If values are negotiable, power becomes absolute. And if power becomes absolute, corruption becomes absolute as well.

If allies are dispensable, treating them with disdain is not just possible, it is excusable. Sooner or later they will then no longer be allies. Within the paradigm of big power competition, the faith in one's own endless strength becomes a self-defeating proposition.

But this is not just about the United States, even though as the West's key power it deserves special scrutiny. Other parts of the West have their own extreme bouts of self-betrayal.

Germany believes that it can benefit from a shared European currency without paying for it. It also believes that it can have a strong, free and rich Europe in the world without arming and going to war for it.

It also believes that the UN is guaranteeing world peace. And it believes that if only the rest of the bunch was as virtuous as Germany, the world would be a better place.

Singapore in the North Sea?

The UK believes its special relationship with the US is still intact.

It truly seems to believe that it was EU regulations that prevented it from becoming a Singapore in the North Sea.

Perhaps it even believes it is desirable to be Singapore at all. It believes it can strike better trade deals outside of the EU than inside of the EU. And it really believes rather strongly that exiting the EU has anything to do with regaining control over its own affairs.

President Emmanuel Macron, on behalf of France, seems to believe that he can lead Europe on the euro, on defence, on China and on agricultural policy without too many of the quarrels of Brussels compromise-making and alliance-building.

He believes he can somehow make his country's nuclear deterrent meaningful for all of Europe without sharing it. He is also the crown witness for all of those who believe that European strategic autonomy is somehow in the books, despite zero evidence in its favour.

The Fridays for Future movement seems to believe that you can rebuild the economy of 500 million people in Europe without any politics involved, just by decree based on good intentions and a culture of generational victimhood.

Europe's alt-right hardliners believe they can build better lives for anyone based on a permanent battle against 'the other'.

Europe's illiberals and nationalists believe that the culture they want to preserve can be protected by building fences or stifling domestic dissent.

Hyper-integrationist activists believe that a European republic is about to emerge any moment now, leaving all national bickering and narrow identities behind.

The European Commission seems to believe that it can be a relevant geopolitical force by leveraging its trade and regulatory powers, but it is still unable to convince any EU member state that the commission should actually be geopolitical at all.

The principal driver of European politics at both the country and the EU level seems to be delusion and self-deceit.

The continent that gave the world the liberating force of enlightenment has collectively reverted to believing in fairy tales and the soothing power of cozy narrowness.

The leaders in Moscow and Beijing like what they see, and they are doing everything to strengthen the trend.

In this age of political endarkenment, pragmatists, non-zealous idealists, un-cynical realists and level-headed leaders without an unduly elevated sense of self-importance are needed more than ever. Irrationality often makes for the most beautiful moments in life.

But it makes for very bad politics.

Author bio

Jan Techau is a senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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